The tradition has held fast for more than a century. On March 2nd, Texas Independence Day, some 40 Texas Exes chapters will gather for dinner, sing college songs, reminisce about their days as UT students, and learn something about the current goings on at the Forty Acres. It’s a time to celebrate everything and everyone connected to Texas and strengthen the bonds with the University.
Don’t forget, though, to thank Bob Saner.
Robert Edward Saner (photo at right) hailed from the wilds of southwest Arkansas, born in 1871 on a farm near the small town of Washington, about 40 miles from Texarkana and the state border. He grew up attending public schools in one-room schoolhouses, and then won a scholarship to Searcy College in Arkansas. Bob stayed a year before he went on to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. For the next three years, he alternated between working various jobs and attending classes full-time, slowly making progress toward a law degree.
In the fall of 1895, when his family had relocated to Dallas, Bob elected to transfer to the University of Texas. At the time, aside from a $15 “matriculation fee,” tuition for in-state students was free. By then, Bob was only a year away from graduation, and the move to UT made financial sense. Bob’s younger brother, John, also registered, as a first-year law student.
With an enrollment of just under 500, and sprawled on a 40-acre campus with a Victorian-Gothic Main Building that was only two-thirds complete, the infant University of Texas was still very much a work in progress. Bob divided his time between law classes and assisting Professor Robert Batts with several legal publications, including Batts Annotated Statutes of Texas. John, meanwhile, found time to join the Athenaeum Literary Society, volunteer part-time at the law library, and pitch for the baseball team. For both, the highlight of the academic year turned out to be March 2nd, Texas Independence Day.
Above left: Only two-thirds of the old Main Building had been completed in 1895.
As Bob and John were newcomers to the Lone Star State, neither had experienced the unique swell of public Texas pride that accompanies the second day of March, but it was soon to make a deep impression on both of them. In 1896, Texas Independence Day was a state-wide holiday, except at the University, where classes were to be held as usual. For years, students had petitioned for the day off to celebrate their state, but their requests were always refused.
This time, the first-year law students, including John, decided to take matters into their own hands. Despite articulate and insistent pleas from Professor Batts, the group voted to skip classes en masse. Instead, they repaired to Scholz’ Beer Garden and spent the afternoon imbibing refreshments and waxing eloquent upon the virtues of everything Texas.
Though Bob hadn’t participated, he’d certainly taken notice. He graduated in June with an LL.B., or a Bachelor of Laws and Letters, as law degrees were then called, and then returned to Dallas to prepare for the state bar exam and seek employment.
The following year, 1897, John’s law class again decided to celebrate Texas Independence Day, but this time legally borrowed a cannon from the Capitol, pulled it more than a mile to campus, and then fired it in front of Old Main. University President George Winston was persuaded to address the students, and claimed that while he’d been born and raised in the land of liberty, “Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with!” (see How to Celebrate Texas Independence Day) The decision to use the cannon was a hit, and a new University tradition was born.
Above right: The 1897 senior law class fires a cannon in front of Old Main to celebrate Texas Independence Day. Click on an image for a larger view.
John completed his LL.B. that spring, and then stayed an extra year to earn a master’s degree – an LL.M. – before joining Bob in Dallas where they soon founded their own law firm.
While Bob’s tenure as a UT student was brief, his relationship with the University was just beginning. Coming to Austin in June to see his brother graduate, Bob sat in on the alumni association meeting, which was then held annually the day before spring commencement. After a couple of years, Bob was hooked, and became a regular attendee for the rest of his life. At one point, he served as the association’s vice president.
In 1900, the alumni had gathered in the auditorium of Old Main, and a serious discussion arose on how to increase participation. At the time, the University was less than two decades old. The alumni association, founded in 1885 by the first two graduating classes of ’84 and ’85, was observing its 15th anniversary. With very few exceptions, the oldest alumni hadn’t yet reached their 40th birthdays, and the majority of UT graduates were still in their 20s. They were busy with new families and building careers. What was needed was an additional event, another excuse for alumni to gather, and something that was nearer to their homes rather than in Austin.
Above: Some UT alumni living in New York City gather on a chilly March 2, 1913.
Bob had an idea. In just a few years, Texas Independence Day had become a popular tradition on the Forty Acres. Might it be extended to the alumni?
In the middle of the discussion, Bob penned a brief resolution, and then passed it to the front to be reviewed by the officers and read to the group. It stated: “Whenever two ex-students of the University of Texas meet on March Second, Texas Independence Day, they shall sit and break bread together and pay tribute to the founders of the Republic of Texas, who made our education possible.”
The resolution was well-received and immediately passed, but nothing further was done to help alumni to contact each other, much less organize an event to “break bread.”
Later that summer, the University’s Board of Regents appointed Bob as UT’s Land Agent. While he continued to practice law in Dallas, Bob had to familiarize himself with the more than two million acres of University-owned lands in West Texas. Provided by the Texas Legislature when UT was created in 1881, it was the basis for the Permanent University Fund. At first, income was generated primarily through grazing and farming leases, but once oil was discovered in 1923, royalties exponentially grew the fund and forever changed the campus. Bob served as UT Land Agent for 30 years, a position that only strengthened his affection for the University.
Above: The Fort Worth alumni held their 1914 banquet at the Westbrook Hotel. At the bottom of the program cover is the Rattle-de-Thrat yell, which was then popular at UT sports rallies and games.
While the alumni association had seemed to not follow through on Bob’s resolution, he persisted, and decided to do something locally. He helped to found the University Club of Dallas – among the first UT alumni chapters – and at its December 31, 1901 meeting to elect officers for the following year, Bob suggested an annual banquet be held on March 2nd, both to celebrate Texas Independence Day and the University. The idea was carried unanimously, and a five-person committee, with Bob as chair, was appointed and charged with “getting up the banquet.”
The idea was reported in The Dallas News the following day, and a month later, surfaced in The Texan student newspaper. “The Texan wishes to lend its hearty approval to this plan,” wrote the editor, “and insists that the alumni of the counties all over the state profit by the example.”
The Texan continued, “Nearly every county is represented by the student body, and the students should urge upon the alumni the necessity and wisdom of falling into line with this movement.” The 1902 Dallas banquet was a rousing success and quickly became the focus of spring activities.
The alumni association, though, continued to sputter and stall, much to the frustration of a small group of ex-students, including Bob, who saw alumni at other colleges and universities grow more active. It wasn’t until association president Ed Parker issued his seminal letter to alumni in December 1910, plainly stating that the association had no complete records, no funding, no headquarters, “no really effective organization,” did the outlook begin to improve. (see The Alumni Room)
Above left: The alumni association published an information booklet for Texas Independence Day in 1924. It included a brief history of how March 2nd came to be celebrated on campus, information about the association, and words to UT songs.
The following June, at the 1911 annual meeting, the association made great strides to reorganize itself. Bob followed up his decade-old resolution with the suggestion that 31 vice-presidents be appointed, one for each state senatorial district, “whose special duty should be to bring University men and women in the district together for a University celebration on Texas Independence Day.” The association found 31 volunteers, along with two more for New York City and Mexico City. Success wasn’t immediate, but within three years, 14 cities were hosting annual banquets, and the number continued to grow.
To promote the March 2nd events, the Alcalde alumni magazine, which debuted in 1913 as part of the association’s reorganization, provided ample room for detailed reports from each banquet. Along with New York and Mexico City, groups in Boston, Saint Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle joined the out-of-state list, which grew further to include London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Above right: The 1931 program for Boston’s March 2nd banquet included a performance of cowboy songs.
In 1916, UT President William Battle addressed both the Dallas and New York groups from the Austin banquet at the Driskill Hotel via long distance telephone. The “conference call” was a first for AT&T, which loaned a substantial amount of equipment for the effort. (see UT’s First Conference Call)
Above: On March 2, 1932, sculptor Pompeo Coppini, who created the Littlefield Fountain and the George Washington statue on the South Mall, hosted UT alumni in New York at his Manhattan studio. Coppini is standing in the back, fourth from left. Look close. Along the wall to the right is a plaster copy of one of the servicemen seen on the Littlefield Fountain. Click on an image for a larger view.
As the popularity of the March 2nd banquets increased, so did the demand by alumni for news from the Forty Acres. A speakers bureau was created by the association and volunteer professors, deans, and UT administrators were dispatched around the state. To provide still more substance, the banquets included fundraising activities to support local scholarships to the University.
In the meantime, all of the activity and fun surrounding Texas Independence Day led directly to the formal establishment of local alumni clubs, what today are Texas Exes chapters. The banquets provided a venue for an annual meeting, where business was discussed and alumni officers elected.
Happy Texas Independence Day, y’all. And thanks, Bob.
Above: On March 2, 1980, the Texas Exes sponsored a parade of students and alumni from the Capitol to the Main Mall, there to observe Texas Independence Day at noon.